Bandits Back Home
Even with a bye week, the Bandits remained humbled as they prepare for their Friday night home game against the incredibly talented Halifax Thunderbirds.
Wrapped around the holiday break, the team, too, braced themselves for the most paralyzing winter storm hitting the Niagara Frontier in decades.
The three games over five weeks have been challenging to handle, remaining vigilant in keeping the intensity required to play this game.
“Yes, it is. The league wanted to move the season up and extend the schedule before Christmas. It’s not exactly ideal, jumping in, pulling back, and then jumping back in. Hopefully, it will be easier on me,” said alternate captain Nick Weiss.
Standing 1-1 on the season, the club is riding off the coattails of their near-perfect performance against Toronto, knowing that every game this season will be a challenge.
It takes players like Weiss to do the unheralded dirty work, helping his team all over the floor with a flare of toughness.
“Hopefully, I’ve gotten meaner. But really, I’m the same player when I came to the Bandits, with defense first and push the ball when I get a chance.
“I don’t know if they want me shooting on net, but they’ve given me the green light to stay in the offensive zone, trying to open some space and setting picks.”
And what about earning your 100th NLL point last game?
“I had no idea; that is pretty cool, though. I have never really kept track of goals and assists over my career, and I am mostly looking for that one championship,” said Weiss.
Thunderbirds are Flying
It’s one game at a time now for the Bandits, and Friday night’s encounter with the Thunderbirds will be a real challenge.
They’ll be coming to Buffalo with a 2-0 record off high-scoring results, which included 18 and 20 goals, respectively.
Halifax is still reeling from their back-to-back losses last season to the Bandits.
But this season, the Thunderbirds added much-needed scoring prowess with familiar faces in the ageless Ryan Benesch and healthy Randy Staats. The two have stoked the offense with 31 points.
Benesch scored five goals and added four assists in their 20-11 win over New York two weeks ago. Staats, who missed the entire season last year, went 4+4=8.
Adding to the enthusiasm, Cody Jamieson and Clark Peterson have followed with 27 points of offense.
Chris Boushy (7+4=11), Eric Fannell (5+3=8), and Austin Shanks (0+4 in one game) have upped their play to complement the Thunderbird’s potent offense.
Defensively, this club remains strong with Graeme Hossack, Tyson Bell, and Jake Whithers, their faceoff expert, with a current 73 percent success rate. Ryan Terefenko and Colton Armstrong add to the element of a surprise mid-turf.
Between the pipes stands veteran Warren Hill (.800%) and Drew Hutchison (.740%)
This is a damn good team coached by former Bandit Mike Accursi.
This game is perfect to start your New Year’s Eve celebration a night early. A couple of good ticket packages are available. Go to bandits.com, and click tickets for availability.
End of 2022, Let’s Review
It was an excellent season for the Bandits, except for not winning the NLL Championship. The club posted a 14-4 record (7-2 at home and road) with winning streaks of six and seven, respectively.
While they wobbled into the playoffs, the Bandits mounted a four-game winning streak, only to run out of juice in the last two games in the NLL Finals to Colorado. It was a long season running from December 4 to June 18.
The club dominated the league in offense, averaging over 13 goals a game. Similar fashion for defense as the strongest in the league. The Bandit’s goal differential was tops in league with +62.
The penalty-killing unit was ranked #1 and they finished a close second to Philadelphia in the power play.
Dhane Smith had an exceptional year by scoring 41 goals and NLL record 94 assists for 135 points, two shy of his NLL record of 137. Named the NLL’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in his career, Smith averaged 7.5 points per game, including two 12-point and five nine-point games.
The Great Dhane recorded his 700th and 800th NLL points during his dominating season over the 18 games. In his 10th season with the Bandits, Smith has 311 goals and 518 assists for 829 points, third overall behind Mark Steenhuis (983) and John Tavares (1,749).
It was a record year, again, for goaltender Matt Vinc. Named the Goaltender of the Year for a record eighth time (third in four seasons). Vinc posted a league-leading 14-4 record and a .807% save percentage, and his 14 wins matched his 2019 totals.
During last year’s regular-season campaign, the 17-year vet established new NLL records by the most all-time minutes played, saves, and goals against.
Vno recorded nine 45+ save performances, including a career-high 60 saves on back-to-back weekend wins vs. Halifax, which netted 104 saves total.
Josh Byrne also had a career season, scoring 37 goals and 62 assists for 99 points. Byrne was one of five Bandit players who scored 30+ goals last season. Byrne had 11 five+ point games and seven hattricks, including three back-to-back.
Defenseman and team captain Steve Priolo, now in his 13th season with the Bandits, was, again, the runner-up to the Defensive Player of the Year. The captain has played 184 games with 181 points and 1,083 loose balls, third all-time in Bandits history.
General manager, Steve Dietrich, earned his third General Manager of the Year award.
The good tidings continue.
Mask on, Mask off
Vinc has a new mask, which he wore two weeks ago in the Bandits 11-8 win over Toronto.
Like for many NHL netminders, protective headgear and masks for goalies in the NLL are adorned with personal illustrations, mementos, city and team colors. Each mask has a story, and Matt’s is unique.
“My brother, Jason, has been painting my helmets since I played junior hockey and lacrosse. Most of the images on the bottom have been the same since I came into the league,” said Vinc.
The 40-year-old tender admired former NHL goaltender Ed Belfour with his “Eddie the Eagle” look similar from season to season and team to team.
“On the sides of my mask, I always have VNO, and then I have a fishhook with a pickerel. The fishhook is always the initials of my dad’s name, who loved fishing and our favorite family tradition, fishing for pickerel.”
The top of the mask is black, separated by Banditland and the Bandits’ eyes, which Vinc liked when the Bandits wore those jerseys back in the 2000s. There are also some personal images on the back with the Buffalo skyline.
“I have my daughter’s nickname “Lily Lou who” and my son, Bodie, as “Bo Knows.” The L is for my wife, Lisa, and the thumbs up represents my supporting family of nieces and nephews who are always watching. The A is a symbol from my old junior team and a poker game royal flush illustration.
“I didn’t know why it was on there when I was a kid playing, but later learned that my brother put it on, as it signifies the best hand in poker, and nothing beats it.”
Boy, you got that right. Hands down!
Tune in, if you can’t make it
Broadcast coverage of Friday night’s game starts with the radio pregame show on WGR Sports Radio 550 scheduled for 7 PM. We will talk with goaltender Matt Vinc and Bandits head coach John Tavares. Too, a chat with Thunderbirds head coach Mike Accursi and player Clarke Peterson is on the agenda.
Television coverage will be on ESPN+ beginning at 7:30 PM. Dave Buchanan will be down between the benches with updates. Randy Mearns joins me in the booth with his color analysis of the game.